Untitled (Construction)

Untitled (Construction)
signed and dated 'Hebbar 62' (lower left)
oil on canvas
30 x 40 in. (76.2 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1962
The Tata Iron and Steel Company, Mumbai
Private Collection, United Kingdom
Christie's London, 15 October 2004, lot 516
Acquired from the above
Gateway Bombay, exhibition catalogue, Salem, 2007, pp. 27, 53 (illustrated)
Salem, Peabody Essex Museum, Gateway Bombay, 14 July 2007 - 1 March 2008

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Lot Essay

“Art can be addressed to the artistic sensibility of the viewer. An artist, being a part of human society, wants his work to be communicative, though not in a sense of telling a story, teaching a moral or describing nature’s grandeur. If a work of art displays technical perfection and also expresses a certain mood, thought or idea, communication becomes more meaningful” (Artist statement, India Modern: Narratives from 20th Century Indian Art, New Delhi, 2015, p. 173).

In this painting from 1962, Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar depicts a large group of laborers atop a building under construction. On the left, a few women sit, perhaps taking a break, while one appears to adjust her head covering. On the central tower of scaffolding, a bare-chested man leans over, probably checking the vat of cement, which will then be passed down the line of women on the other side, until it reaches the end of the roof where new bricks are being laid. The artist renders the workers with dramatic strokes of vibrant color. The bright blues, pinks, and oranges of their saris and turbans contrasts with the relatively monochromatic urban surroundings. Hebbar represents the buildings in the city around his subjects as unvarying, using thick, textural brushstrokes to suggest the dull grittiness of the urban environment.

This would have been a familiar scene to Indian city dwellers at the time, as the 1960s was characterized by constant construction and expansion. Government initiatives such as Delhi’s First Master Plan and Calcutta’s Basic Development Plan mandated new infrastructure, solutions to urban congestion, and the economic development of areas around cities. Hebbar depicts this period of radical change with his characteristically expressive style. The painting’s strong sense of movement reflects his lifelong interest in music and dance. Though this is not a village scene, Hebbar draws on a similar sense of liveliness and energy, transforming quotidian manual labor into choreographed spectacle.

The present lot also reflects a key point of transition in Hebbar’s career. As a student at the Sir. J.J. School of Art in Bombay, Hebbar was trained in academic, salon-style painting. His early works include highly realistic portraits and landscapes, a style he quickly grew out of. In a quest for fresh artistic inspiration, Hebbar travelled to Kerala in 1946, observing the art, dance, and lives of village people. They reminded him of Paul Gaugin’s portraits of Tahitians, leading him to develop a style that draws on India’s folk art, Gaugin’s bold colors, and European Impressionism. In 1949, he travelled to Paris, where he formally studied Impressionism and graphic art. While he drew inspiration from modern European movements, he retained an appreciation for Indian classical and folk art, which informed his bold use of line, graphic imagery, and quintessentially Indian iconography. This painting draws on these influences, but also foreshadows Hebbar’s paintings of the 1970s and 1980s, which became more abstract, as he expressed anxieties over the destructive capacity of humankind in the Cold War era.

As such, the present lot is a fascinating midpoint between Hebbar’s academic realism, his folk art, and his abstraction, evading easy categorization. The painting showcases the artist’s formal experimentation, his strong sense of individualism, and his capacity to unearth the beauty in the everyday. As Hebbar once argued, “[p]ainting has nothing to do with beauty, physical beauty has nothing to do with painting. Painting must have beauty with its own form, its own color” (Artist statement, Indian Contemporary Painting, New York, 1998, p. 305). This work exemplifies the artist’s concern with creating a kind of beauty distinct to the canvas, a composition unique to his perspective on life in a rapidly transforming society.

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